Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Record label: Manqué Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Neo-Psychedelia, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Ski Mask begins with a proclamation: “I won’t ride another wave”—a strangely definitive statement for a band whose name evokes musings of a leisurely getaway. Fittingly, the record is a leap for a band toying with reconstruction, evidenced by the emotional strain weighing upon songs like “We’ll Do It So You Don’t Have To.” Ski Mask is Islands’ most daring record; indie-pop that’s a little defeated, as though left out in the sun too long. Islands haven’t surrendered completely, although vocalist Nick Thorburn admitted that anger punctuated the record’s lyrical origins.
While Arcade Fire are congo-ing around Montreal with Bono, Michael Cera and Ben Stiller in a new video, across town Islands are slumped in the Last Chance Saloon, declaring this fifth album their make-or-break crisis record. Let’s hope Sinéad O’Connor writes an open letter in support, because a band this fun should never be allowed to die. Here they create Tornados space-gypsy westerns (‘Sad Middle’), Chapel Club military anthems (‘Becoming The Gunship’), white reggae gun rampage fantasies (‘Shotgun Vision’) and geek hoedowns about rampant alcoholism (‘Nil’), all with a maniacal sense of pessimistic self-destruction and a deep love for tinny synths.
Confessional, semi-ironic lyrics have always been the backbone of Nick Thorburn’s catalog. The Canadian musician has splashed his coy style across a handful of projects since the early 2000s, working with bands like The Unicorns, Human Highway and Islands to pair brooding wordplay with a backdrop of cheery electro-pop. With Ski Mask, Islands’ fifth album, Thorburn continues to anchor his sound in witty banter and explosive harmonies.
Islands' previous album, 2012's A Sleep and A Forgetting, was the most honest and direct album Nick Thorburn had yet made. Revolving around his divorce, the record was heartbreaking and true in a way that was slightly unexpected from someone with his track record. Until that album, Islands' trademark was light, breezy, and weird indie rock, but their move into a more adult and carefully constructed style totally worked thanks to the strength of the songs and the obvious pain that Thorburn was able to truthfully transmit.
Nick Thorburn has the power to electrify. He's always had it, from his beginnings fronting tweelectro-pop band the Unicorns, through his and drummer Jamie Thompson's second-generation outfit Islands, and even at points in supergroups (Mister Heavenly, Human Highway) and his own solo projects. The songwriter formerly-and-still-sometimes known as Nick Diamonds has demonstrated a singular grasp on inventive songwriting that wriggles its way into gray matter.
Speaking of sprawling, over-ambitious albums by Montreal indie-pop collectives, I think I was one of about four people obsessed with Islands’ second LP, the monumental, ridiculous, metal-meltingly caustic Arm’s Way. The record’s numerous detractors pointed out that that by comparison to Return to the Sea, the magnificent first outing for Nick Thorburn’s post-Unicorns outfit, its follow up was a bitter, indulgent, unhummable mess. And, er, that’s kind of true – most of the songs were about ten minutes long and blithely uninformed by anything approaching sensible form or structure, while Thorburn’s lyrical pre-occupations ran the gamut from self-hatred (‘Creeper’) to hatred of his bandmates (‘J'aime Vous Voire Quitter’).
A Sleep and a Forgetting, the last record from Islands, the Montreal indie-pop outfit headed by Nick Thorburn, was a mature, melodic, and heartfelt breakup album. It also was a bit of a left turn from the more whimsical, quirky material Islands was known for. Some fans and critics thought A Sleep and a Forgetting was, while accomplished, also a bit dull.
On first listen, Islands' Ski Mask sounds like any number of other albums that might fall under the capacious signifier “indie rock,” but upon closer inspection, the songs reveal more subtle modulations and quirks that pay off in ways one might not expect. Formed by frontman Nick Thorburn after the dissolution of the freaky, lo-fi outfit the Unicorns, Islands have sloughed off their discordant instrumental mixes and offbeat lyrics in favor of a more conventional approach to songwriting, even when things get as gloomy as they do on visceral post-breakup albums like A Sleep & a Forgetting and, as it turns out, Ski Mask. If the new album, as Thorburn has said, constitutes “a summation of Islands, everything we've ever done distilled into one record,” then the effect is that the jagged edges of their earlier music have been smoothed out and their zanier ventures reined in, amounting to a middle ground that prioritizes consistency over risk-taking.
Though they’ve already lasted twice as long as the Unicorns (enough time to make sweeping changes to their sound), Islands continues to be compared to Nick Thorburn’s mercurial first group. With Ski Mask, Islands’ fifth album, that unfair comparison fades a step or two further musically, his reference points expanding with each new release. That said, Thorburn’s coy, surreal, explosively emotional lyrics and often deadpan delivery still run the show; he inherently becomes the golden thread running through that makes a retrospective comparison inevitable.